18 May

Sex Workers are Feminists Too

“Today I want to talk about sex workers.”

This was not your regular presentation opening at a meeting with funders. But then, it was not your regular meeting. From 11 to 13 April 2018, a unique encounter of very diverse activists and funders took place in Kenya to talk – and dream – about feminist movement building. The methodology required everyone’s participation while innovative scenario sessions forced participants to get out of their comfort zone, think beyond their organisational priorities, and imagine a different future.

“I am a beautiful woman and I use my body to make a living,” the presentation continues.

The speaker is Phelister Abdalla, Coordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), a national network with members in each of the country’s districts. In Kenya, stigma against sex workers is rampant, as is violence from police and others. Although sex work itself is not directly criminalised by law, in practice it is. Sex work can be prohibited by municipal bylaw, and to aid, abet, compel or incite prostitution is explicitly illegal. Phelister is also a member of the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, where, as she says, “it is sex workers who are deciding where the money goes.” Standing up in front of a crowd with over a hundred pairs of eyes looking directly at her, Phelister seems fearless and impressive.

“I make people happy and get money for that,” she adds comfortably.

A hundred pair of eyes looked at her in anticipation. Many people in the room had never (to their knowledge) met a sex worker before. Let alone listened to a sex worker speak.

Money & Movements

The entire encounter, called Money & Movements, was organised by a consortium of organisations called Count Me In! with the aim to get new, more and better (more accessible, sustainable, flexible) money to support feminist movement building. Feminist activists from all regions and diverse backgrounds and communities, including sex worker rights activists from Argentina, Guyana, USA, Uganda, Kenya and Myanmar, contributed to the conversations.

Also in terms of funder presence there was much diversity. Multi-and bilateral funders, private foundations, as well as public foundations including regional women’s funds travelled the globe to contribute, listen and learn.

Nothing about us without us

Already in the introductory session, the right tone was set when participants themselves highlighted the importance of the principle “nothing about us without us”. A bilateral funder sitting at my table nodded. Another courageous funder – not from one of the activist-led funds – emphasized that “we need to shift the power of money.” “Indeed,” added an activist at the same table:

“We often hear inclusion is expensive. But what is the cost of exclusion?”

Transformational Stories

Phelister was one of the key storytellers on the first day, following stories from other women activists from different regions who highlighted passions of women with disabilities (“we have passions beyond our disability!”) and indigenous organising. With every activist who spoke out, the urgency of inclusion and the need for diversity in movements became more apparent.

“This world is full of stigma and discrimination,” continued Phelister. She described how twenty sex workers were killed in just a month time.

“We were not sure we would make it home to our children late at night. Or whether our kids would get the news ‘there is no more mother’.”

That year, on the 17th of December, the international day to end violence against sex workers, they decided to march against violence against sex workers.


“We wanted people to see us. We weren’t sure if anyone would show up, but over 1500 people came. We showed people who we are. We are women who believe in our bodies, who believe in our jobs. Sex work is work.”

In the past year, KESWA has been completing in-depth research of human rights violations against sex workers in preparation of their plan to take the government to court. Already, KESWA supports sex workers whose rights are violated in the litigation of their cases. The rulings in each case, along with the evidence they have been documenting, will be used to push for the repeal of laws that work to criminalize sex work and thus harm sex workers in Kenya.

Another country with high levels of violence against sex workers where sex workers are taking their government to court is the US (for example in Alaska and California). Just as people were getting on an airplane to join the Money & Movements convening new legislation was passed in US Congress called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). This immediately resulted in the shutting down of websites critical to sex workers for their advertising and safety across the country. By the end of the convening, our social media accounts were flooding with reports from sex workers who lost their main source of income and were left homeless without the ability to pay rent. Levels of violence against sex workers increased immediately.

“And this is not just in the US,” clarified Phelister.

“It’s also happening right here in Kenya. Backpage – a well-known and established adult ads webpage –  has also shut down here. Sex workers use that page to find clients and screen clients and stay safe.”

Phelister set the scene for a multitude of conversations and plans during the three-day meeting around funding for feminist movements. And for a feminist future that includes sex workers.

“Sex workers are feminists too. We belong in the feminist movement. My body, my business!”


By Nadia van der Linde